Opinions & Ideas

Category: Books Page 1 of 4

THE LIFE, AND AFTER LIFE, OF A SPY

I have enjoyed reading “The Happy Traitor, the extraordinary story of George Blake” by Simon Kuper.

Kuper writes regularly in the Financial Times and it was my sense of his talent as a writer, rather than the subject , that initially drew me to this recently published book. 

Blake, although portrayed as a traitor to Britain, was not really British by allegiance. He was Dutch, with a Dutch mother and a father who came from an Egyptian Jewish family. Behar, not Blake was his real surname.

He was brought up as a Calvinist and retained the strict outlook of that faith throughout his life.

Aged 20,he escaped from Nazi occupied Holland to Britain in 1942, via Belgium , France and Spain.

In Britain he joined the Royal Navy and, because of his talent for foreign languages, he was assigned to the intelligence services. He served on Korea during the Korean War, and was captured and imprisoned by the Communists.

It was there, in a North Korean prison, that he began to transfer his allegiance from Calvinism to Communism. 

After his release and return to Britain, he returned to the British intelligence services, but made contact with the Soviet Embassy and stated copying large quantities of top secret material and handing it over to the Soviets. As a result of his activities, hundreds of British informers in the Soviet Union were identified and executed.

His activities were eventually uncovered in 1961 and he was sentenced to 42 years in gaol, a much more severe punishment than that suffered by more upper class traitors like Blunt, Philby and McClean.

As Irish readers will recall he was helped to escape from prison in 1966 by an Irish man he had come to know in prison, Sean Bourke.

He got to Russia via East Berlin and was provided with accommodation and a pension by the KGB.

According to Kuper, in old age, Blake 

“acquired something he had lacked in his youth; the ability to find happiness in the here and now, beyond either power or ideas.” 

He died late last year.

A Difficult Birth: the early years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25

We are approaching the centenary of the coming into existence of Northern Ireland, whose Parliament was opened by King George the fifth on 22 June 1921. This event took place just three weeks before the Truce of 11 July 1921 that ended the Irish War of Independence.

 The creation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland had already been authorised by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It had also authorised the creation of a Parliament of Southern Ireland, with similar devolved powers.

 Elections to both parliaments were held on 24 May 1921, but the Southern Parliament only met once, because the Sinn Fein members refused to sit there, and sat instead in what constituted itself as the second Dail. The Dail was considered to be an illegal assembly by the UK authorities.

When the Northern Parliament met, a substantial majority of those who were elected DID take their seats.  The Unionist Party had won 40 seats of the 52 seats with 66% of the vote, against 6 seats each for Sinn Fein and for Joe Devlin’s constitutional Nationalists who had respectively won 20%, and 11.8%, of the vote. The size of the Unionist victory caused surprise in some quarters, although the voting had taken place against a background of continuing violence. The Sinn Fein and Nationalist MPs did not take their seats in the Northern Parliament at this stage.

The powers of the Northern Ireland Parliament were quite limited, as pointed out at the time, by Lord Donoughmore  and others.

 He said it was “unsound” to set up a Parliament without the usual powers of taxation. Over 90% of the taxes in Northern Ireland (NI) were, he said, to be set and collected by the Imperial Parliament in London.

 To grant the new NI Parliament the power to spend, without also having the responsibility of raising taxes to finance that spending, lent itself to gesture politics and to the systemic avoidance of responsibility. That problem remains to this day in Northern Ireland and other devolved UK administrations.

The Unionists, led by Sir James Craig, who became Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, did not regard the establishment of Northern Ireland as an end in itself. In theory at least, they would have preferred if there had been no devolution of powers at all, and if the whole of Ireland continued to be governed directly from Westminster. In establishing an administration in NI, Ulster Unionists saw themselves as taking on a duty, rather than enjoying a newly conferred freedom.

While they had opposed Home Rule for a united island of Ireland, they were willing to live with Home Rule for two separate parts of Ireland, as provided for in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

This arrangement prevented their part of Ulster being subject to Dublin rule, which was their overriding objective.  

Northern Ireland did not enjoy a peaceful birth, as we all know. Violence had  already commenced in 1920. The first casualty was a Clareman, Denis Moroney, an RIC sergeant, who was killed by the IRA in Derry city on 15 May 1920.

But the violence was more overtly sectarian, and lasted much longer, in Belfast. It was am intensification of six similar sectarian outbursts that had occurred at different times in the 19th century.

There were particular reasons for the outburst after the end of the Great War.

Military recruitment had led to a labour shortage, and many Catholics had been recruited, during the War, to fill jobs in Belfast that had previously been filled by Protestants, in places like the ship yards.

The end of the war in November 1918 meant that many Loyalists returned from the Front, and wanted their jobs back. This led to violent evictions of Catholic workers from their jobs. The Dublin Castle government refused to intervene, on the ground that these were “trade union issues”, and the displaced workers were even initially denied unemployment benefits.

This led to retaliatory attacks on trams carrying Loyalist workers to or from their jobs, whenever the tram route passed through a predominantly Nationalist neighbourhood. Once one knew the terminus of a tram, one could work out the likely religious affiliation of most of the passengers on it!

Several Protestants, who worked in predominantly Catholic workforces, such as the docks and the brewing industry, were also edged out of their jobs.

The IRA murder of RIC commander Gerald Smyth in Cork in July 1920 led to retaliations against the small Catholic community in Banbridge, Smyth’s home town.

Catholics and Protestants in mixed neighbourhoods were burned, or intimidated, out of their homes.

As in the early 1970’s, fugitives sought refuge in Dublin and Cork.

 An ill judged and ineffective boycott of goods manufactured in the North was organised in the South, as a response to the attacks on Catholics.

Under the Truce of 11 July 1921, the IRA had agreed that attacks on Crown forces and civilians were to cease, and there was to be no interference with Government or private property.

Apart from some score settling and house burning, the Truce held in the South until the outbreak of the Civil War a year later. This Truce created space in which it was possible to negotiate a Treaty that led to the creation a Free State government for Southern Ireland (a government that did have the responsibility of raising taxation!).

 But the Truce of July 1921 did not hold in Northern Ireland.  In fact the conflict intensified there, for reasons partially explored in this book.

 Attacks on Catholics continued, and the James Craig’s government took little effective action to stop it. They did establish special constabularies, but these were recruited mainly among the Protestant community.

 In fact, some noteworthy sectarian killings were carried out by people wearing police uniforms.

 60% of the fatalities in this conflict were Catholic, although Catholics were only 35% of the population. Thanks to the pre War gun running, the Loyalist community had more arms and ammunition than Nationalists had.

In early 1922, after the signing of the Treaty, but before the outbreak of the Civil War here, meetings were arranged between Michael Collins and James Craig, in an attempt to reduce the violence. The very fact of such meetings taking place place showed political courage on the part of both leaders.

 In return for an end to the boycott of Belfast goods in the South, they agreed that there would be a reorganisation of policing on non sectarian lines. A Police Committee and a Conciliation Committee were to be set up.  But grassroots Unionist opinion did not take kindly to the pact.

 Neither Collins nor Craig was fully in control of their own side. As a result, false hopes were raised.

 The “Irish Independent” even hoped that the Collins/ Craig pact would be “a great and decided advance towards Irish union”. This optimistic interpretation was without foundation, but it was guaranteed to annoy Unionists. The same excess of optimism is being repeated in some quarters today, in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It could have similar malign results.

 In fact, sectarian killings intensified in the wake of the Craig/Collins pact, on an escalating tit for tat basis.

Six people, some elderly, were killed in Lisdrumliska near Newry by the IRA in June 1922, in an attempt at ethnic cleansing of Protestants from that townland. Three Catholics were shot dead in Cushendun by police, in a futile search for arms.

 When the Civil War started in the South, in August 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts, the trouble subsided somewhat in the North, as many (but not all) of the Northern division of the IRA (like Charles Haughey’s father) went south to join the pro Treaty National Army.

Alan Parkinson gives a thorough account of the suffering on all sides in these years.

 He gives the victims a name, and in so doing restores their humanity. They are no longer just statistics, but people who came from somewhere, lived a life, and then had that life deliberately cut short, by someone who still enjoys the unearned privilege of anonymity.

The circumstances of its birth determine what Northern Ireland is today. Those pressing for a border poll should read this book.

PATRICK KAVANAGH

“Patrick Kavanagh, a biography” by Antoinette Quinn is one of the best, and most engaging , biographies I have ever read.

 It was published by Gill and Macmillan in 2001 and it has been resting unread on my bookshelf ever since. Thanks to lockdown, I finally got around to reading it.

This book opens a window into the social history of Ireland from the 1920’s up to the 1960’s. Kavanagh saw himself as reacting , through his poetry and prose, against the romanticised Ireland of the Literary revival, embodied by Yeats and Synge. 

As a journalistic controversialist,   he even went as far as advocating defunding the Abbey Theatre, the Folklore Commission, and the Arts Council . He favoured the abandonment of compulsory Irish. He objected to the pomp surrounding the President,

While he is remembered  primarily as a poet, he made his meagre living mainly as a freelance journalist, writing for publications such as   “ The Irish Press”, “the Bell”, the “Catholic Standard”(as its film critic),  and the “Irish Farmers Journal”. 

He was not afraid to offend, or to advocate unpopular opinions.  In today’s more puritanical era, he would probably have been the victim of the intolerant Cancel Culture (as was Kevin Myers recently).

He stayed on the farm in South Monaghan until he was 30, when he moved to Dublin, and later London for a while. His early poetry was rural realist, his later work was what one might call Ballsbridge romantic. 

Unrequited love was a theme in both periods, most famously expressed in “On Raglan Road”.

This biography discusses every aspect of his life, his relationship with his parents and his siblings, his many girlfriends, his financial struggles and his eventual alcoholism. 

He was quite a self centred person, but made some lasting friends, notably the late Senator Eoin Ryan (whose political views he would not have shared, but who was consistently generous to him). Other writers were also very helpful to him, but were not always thanked.

To read this book is to live through the life of Dublin in the years before, during , and just after the Second World War. It is brilliant.

LIVING THROUGH THE SECOND WORLD WAR

I have recently read two books that give different insights into the horror of the Second World War, and how it tested people’s values.

“The Son and Heir” by Alexander Munninghof ( published by Amazon Crossing in 2020) tells the story of the author’s own, once wealthy, Dutch family. They were part of the pre war German speaking business elite in Latvia. Initially part of a privileged minority, they had to leave Latvia, when the Hitler/Stalin Pact allocated Latvia to the Soviet sphere of influence in 1939.  

The author’s grandfather was a domineering character, who had retained a strong ancestral affiliation with the Netherlands.  After the family’s ejection from Latvia, he soon re established himself and his business there. 

But the author’s own father, who had been sent to the Netherlands to school against his wishes, felt more German. He rebelled against his father by joining the SS at the beginning of the war . He served on the Eastern Front. On his return to the Netherlands after the War, he was imprisoned.

 The family tensions, upheavals and the  bitter separations described in this book illustrate the cost of war, even for those who survive uninjured.

“The Ratline, love, lies and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive” by Philippe Sands (published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson) is the story of Otto Wachter, a lifelong Austrian Nazi .He was involved in an attempted Nazi coup against the Austrian leader Dolfuss, and became influential when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

 Wachter later became a senior official in the German occupation, first of Poland, and later of Ukraine.  He was involved in the extermination of thousands of Jews in both places.

 After the defeat of Germany he escaped across the Alps on foot to Italy, leaving his wife and children behind in Vienna. 

 He was sheltered for several years in a convent in Rome. He might have found his way to Latin America, like other Nazi war criminals did, but he died in July 1949 of an infection he contracted by swimming the polluted Tiber river. 

Like Munninghoff’s book, this is the story of a family. 

Wacther’s devoted wife supported him and his ideology completely. She kept letters that enabled Sands to describe the life of a rising figure in the Nazi hierarchy. 

 Sands also describes the different ways in which Wachter’s children try to cope with his legacy.

Both books are worth reading.

AN ULSTER LOYALIST TELLS HIS STORY

Billy Hutchinson is the leader of the small Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and represents it on Belfast City Council. He was, for a time, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  He has recently written an autobiography entitled “My Life in Loyalism”, published by Merrion Press.

Billy Hutchinson  played an important part, while in prison in the 1980’s and later on, in encouraging the Loyalist paramilitaries towards political accommodation, instead of violence. 

 Brexit creates a new, and potentially difficult, relationship between  Ulster Loyalism and the rest of Ireland.  So understanding Loyalism is more important than ever. This book is timely.

 Hutchinson contributed to the peace process.  As the leader of the UVF prisoners in Long Kesh, through   his contacts with Pat Thompson, his IRA counterpart,   he helped get  Catholic and Protestant clergy involved in exploring political ways forward.

 The UVF had been founded in 1965, and was a violent response to the  IRA threat in the late 1960’s. It  was one of a proliferation of Loyalist paramilitary groups. It was a rival of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The UVF was the more disciplined than the UDA and operated through a cell structure, whereas the UDA tended to hold  public parades, and provide an umbrella under which several  Loyalist groups could shelter.

 The PUP, formed in 1975, became the vehicle the UVF used to move into politics and away from violence .

Billy Hutchinson had been born in 1955. He was a native of the Shankill Road and intensely proud of his locality. His father was a NI Labour supporter, with numerous Catholic friends, but his mother was a more traditional unionist.

 Billy was first drawn onto political activity through soccer.

 He was a supporter of Linfield FC. To get to Linfield’s ground at Windsor Park, Shankill supporters of  the club   had to cross the Falls Road  and walk past the nationalist Unity Flats. This fortnightly procession of Linfield supporters, before and after home games, became an occasion for mutual provocations between the two communities. 

This became especially acute when the sectarian temperature rose in the late 1960’s.

Hutchinson, then a tall teenager, older looking than his years, took a leading role in managing these confrontations.  He saw himself as defending his locality. He also saw the Civil Rights movement as a front for the IRA, and the IRA as attempting to force unionists into a united Ireland.

As he admits, the crude view of the UVF was that, if they killed enough Catholics, the Catholic community would pressurize the IRA to stop. 

This sort of thinking also had echoes in more “respectable “  unionism. Former Home Affairs Minister, Bill Craig, told a Vanguard rally in 1972, to 

“build up the dossiers on the men and women who are a menace to this country, because if the politicians fail, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy”. 

Of course, the IRA was equally brutal and indiscriminate. For example, Protestant families were being forced to abandon their homes in the New Barnsley estate when Catholics were forced out in other parts of the city.

Hutchinson and his friends felt that the RUC and the British Army were not protecting the Loyalist community from IRA intimidation. 

 Still a teenager, he  became an armed bodyguard for the UVF leader Gusty Spence. He also undertook offensive operations, and gave weapons training, while also holding down a day job.

 This book gives an insight into the life, and the infighting, within Loyalist paramilitarism.

 Many people were shot on the basis of suspicions, often unfounded.

 Hutchinson is a teetotaller, but much of the social life of Loyalism took place in pubs and clubhouses. 

The reader is introduced to many unusual characters. One was a Catholic, Jimmy McKenna, whose brother Arthur had been killed by the IRA. Jimmy was determined to get revenge. So he offered his services to the UVF. After some hesitation they accepted him.  He proved very useful because of his knowledge of republican areas. McKenna was eventually found to be working for the security forces.

 Although there was much indiscriminate violence, there was also some political thinking taking place among Loyalists as early as the 1970’s.

 For example, in January 1974, the UVF gave cautious support of a proposal by Desmond Boal, a former Unionist and DUP MP, for a federal Ireland , with autonomy for Northern Ireland . Boal had worked on the idea with Sean McBride, a former Irish Minister for External Affairs.

  At the time, Hutchinson did not dismiss it, but asked a reasonable question. How could concessions to republicans be considered, while the IRA was still in existence, and people were being killed?

THE AMORALITY OF ARMED STRUGGLE

 Then, at only 19 years of age, in late 1974, the law caught up with Billy Hutchinson. He was convicted of the murder of two Catholics, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan. 

As he puts it;

“ Even though the evidence was pointing toward my involvement in the shooting, I tried to maintain an air of defiance,”

and  disingenuously added 

 “Loughran and Morgan had been identified as active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know”. 

This amoral detachment about the ending of two young lives is chilling. 

 But this sort of amorality is intrinsic to all “armed struggle”. 

 If one does not want that form of psychological and moral deformation to occur, one should not start armed struggles at all, especially if other potential remedies had  not been exhausted.  One should never retrospectively justify or glorify such killings.  That applies equally to the events of 1916, 1919, and 1970. It applies as much to Kilmichael , as it does  to Greysteel  or  Narrow Water .

Billy Hutchinson spent a long period in jail in Long Kesh for his crime, from 1975 until 1990. 

PRISON LIFE

He gives an interesting account of prison life. 

Gusty Spence was the commander of the UVF prisoners and military discipline was maintained among them. A similar regime applied among the IRA prisoners. 

Hutchinson maintained a high level of fitness while in gaol, running 15 miles a day inside the perimeter of his compound.

 He had left school at 14 years of age but, while in prison , he passed his O levels and A levels, and got a degree in town planning,  a useful qualification for someone who is now a member of Belfast City Council!

After his release in 1990, he was involved with Gusty Spence and others, in the peace process which  led to the announcement, in October 1994,  by the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) , of a ceasefire. This acknowledged the hurt suffered by victims  of Loyalist violence, something the IRA has yet  to do fully. 

THE DEMOCRATIC ROOTS OF LOYALISM

One of the principles set out by the CLMC in this announcement was that 

  “there must be no dilution of the democratic procedure through which the rights of self determination of the people of Northern Ireland are guaranteed”.

 This vital issue of democratic procedure will take on a new relevance after Brexit. 

 Under the  Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Treaty, many  of the laws to be applied  the Northern Ireland will emanate from the EU, but without  a democratic procedure involving  elected representatives  of  the people of Northern Ireland . That will call out for a remedy.

In his treatment of the peace process, Billy Hutchinson gives much praise to the late  Irish American businessman, Bill Flynn, for his support for Loyalists on their journey. 

On the other hand, he is dismissive of Ian Paisley, quoting his late father as saying that Paisley “would fight to the last drop of everyone else’s blood”. 

Billy is self consciously a socialist in his political opinions, although this seems to signify as much a badge of identity as it does a precise political programme. 

He may not have won a large number of votes in recent elections, but Hutchinson represents a strand of Unionism that is open to change. 

The aftermath of Brexit will increase the importance of  understanding  the thinking of  people like him.  

While he acknowledges the help of Dr Mulvenna in preparing this autobiography, the text is very much his own, and will be of interest to future historians. So it is unfortunate that the book contains no index.

THE POWERFUL AND THE DAMNED

Over Christmas , I read the book with the above arresting title. It is by Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times for the past 15 years, who has just retired.

 It is a gallop through the last decade and a half  of economic and political history in the form of a diary.

Barber did actually not keep a  daily diary but  he did make notes on important events and meetings at the time  and  these  provide the  content  of the books.  Where his opinion has changed since, he includes a note in a different script, beside the original.

 The book is published by Penguin.

He gets to the heart of the economic crisis of 2008 quite early in the book.

He blames it on competition between banks, who used new and obscure forms of credit to increase their  revenues unsustainably, because if they failed to do so, the private equity firms, who wanted revenue growth for their clients, would desert them.

I am unsure that this structural problem in capitalism has since been solved, and we are now living through another rapid expansion of credit on artificially favourable terms. Let’s see what happens…..

As editor, Lionel Barber inherited a Blairite newspaper.

 The FT had backed Labour in the 1997,2001 and 2005 General Elections. He switched to support the Tories in the   2010 General election.

Under Lionel Barber, The FT even supported David Cameron in the fateful General Election of 2015 .

As Barber put it at the time;

“We are holding our noses over Cameron’s Europe policy and his planned referendum (on Brexit). On balance , the case for continuity  rests on the economic record of the coalition government”.

Given the FT’s strong support for EU membership, the FT got that call spectacularly wrong in supporting David Cameron in 2015.

 Ed Miliband, as the alternative Prime Minister, would not have led the UK to exit from the EU. Jeremy Corbyn would never have led the Labour Party.

Barber is right when he says that no British government had ever made a serious political argument for EU membership, but if you vote for politicians, like Cameron, who have a superficial understanding of the EU,  that should not be a surprise.

Under Lionel Barber’s editorship, the FT enjoyed commercial success, and adapted well to the digital media world.

 It hosted some spectacularly good columnists. Martin Wolf and Philip Stephens spring to mind but there are many others.

Looking forward, Lionel Barber sees unregulated competition between the US and China as the number one threat to the world.  I agree. The risk of military conflict between them remains real.

 He also sees risks to democratic representative governance, if democratic states are perceived to fail in managing problems like Covid.

There are lots of anecdotes, and indiscreet word pictures of global figures in this book. But the author remains the star in his own show!

SAVING THE STATE….A HISTORY OF FINE GAEL

“Saving the State, Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar”, by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan,  is a good example of a fruitful cooperation between a distinguished academic historian, and an insightful political journalist. 

Ciara Meehan is a reader in history in the University of Hertfordshire. 

 Stephen Collins is a long time political columnist in the “Irish Times”.

 Both have written numerous books separately, but their combined work on this occasion combines readability and rigorous judgement.  It deserves a wide readership.

Although I have spent my lifetime intimately involved with the ups and down of Fine Gael, I learned much that was new to me in this book.

 I had not known, for example, that in forming his government in 1973, Liam Cosgrave offered the Ministry of Finance to Brendan Corish, the Labour Leader, if Brendan Corish would agree to take it himself.

 Corish declined and opted instead for Health and Social Welfare, so Richie Ryan of Fine Gael got the unenviable job of navigating the oil crisis and implementing some very unpopular capital taxes. 

Fine Gael was formed as a political party in 1933.

It was of a merger of the old Cumann  na nGaedhael led by WT Cosgrave, The Centre Party led by Frank McDermott and James Dillon,  and the Blueshirts led by Eoin O Duffy. 

It was agreed between the three merging groups that O Duffy, although not a TD, would be the overall leader. This proved to be a mistake and it is a mystery to me that it was not foreseen at the time.

In making this choice, the new party displayed a lack of confidence in itself and what it had achieved and a desire to associate itself with ephemeral  contemporary political fashions, as  represented by O Duffy. 

In his favour, O Duffy had been prominent in the War of Independence and in the formation of the Garda Siochana. He had had executive responsibility. He had set up a movement and  had shown he could organize political rallies.

 He was seen, according to the authors    

” as a Michael Collins type, someone who could excite the party in the way that Cosgrave could not”. 

 If that was the reason, it was an odd decision, for a party which was, and is, deeply constitutionalist in its convictions and support base.  WT Cosgrave, the state builder, ought to be the iconic figure for Fine Gael, and ought to be its model in choosing a leader, then , now, or in the future. 

The title of this book, “Saving the State” summarizes very well for me  the core value that underlies Fine Gael. 

It is that value that has led it to enter government with its traditional rival, Fianna Fail, a decision that reflects credit on both parties.

The book is full of interesting detail, and brings us right up to the formation of the present government.

It is an insightful and readable account……well worth buying for Christmas, if you like modern Irish history.

BRITAIN AND EUROPE IN A TROUBLED WORLD

Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government in Kings College in London, has recently written a book on a very topical subject, “Britain and Europe in a Troubled World”.

Its publication by Yale University Press coincides with the likely agreement on a new future relationship between the UK and the EU, which the UK recently left.

The first part of the book is historical. 

It shows that the Attlee Labour government in London in the early 1950’s chose not to join the European Coal and Steel Community(ECSC)  because it had recently nationalised the British coal and Steel industry and felt that the ECSC would have too much of a private sector focus. It did not want a continental body telling Durham miners that their coal were surplus to requirements, or too costly.

Churchill favoured a United States of Europe, but with Britain in partnership, and trading, with it, but without being a member itself.

 He saw Britain as most comfortable as sitting in the overlap between three concentric circles –

  • Europe,
  • the transatlantic relationship with America, and
  • the Commonwealth ( or Empire as Churchill would have preferred to call it). 

 Churchill even went as far as envisaging 

“ a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship”

 among Europeans. He was right in this, but the goal is not yet achieved.

Churchill’s  successor as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, wanted free trade with Europe, but no Customs Union and no political Union. He did not believe the six countries attempting to agree such a Union in 1957 would succeed in their goal.

 But they did succeed.

 Meanwhile the UK was losing its Empire, the links with the Commonwealth were weakening, and the Suez debacle of 1956 had reminded them that their alliance with the US was not based on equality. 

 So, in 1961, Macmillan changed his mind and made what he called the “grim choice”to join the Common Market, only to have the application vetoed by de Gaulle because he felt that Britain was too close the US, and was not wholehearted in its commitment to Europe. 

Eventually another Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath did succeed in persuading France to allow the UK to join the European Communities in 1973. In the recent Brexit debate, many Brexiteers claimed that the UK only ever wanted to join a common market, without any political strings. But at the time Edward Heath told the House of Commons in April 1975 that the European Communities 

“were founded for a political purpose, the political purpose was to absorb the new Germany into the structure of the European family”. 

Vernon Bogdanor identifies a number of issues that led UK public opinion to turn away from the EU. notably 

  • the rows about the UK’s financial contribution, 
  • the ejection of the £ from the European Monetary System, 
  • immigration, under the free movement provisions of the EU Treaties and
  • the upsurge in identity politics in the wake of the financial crash of 2008.

He has a final chapter in the book entitled “Never Closer Union” in which he attempts to say what will happen to the EU after Brexit.

 It contains a number of contestable statements like

  • “ few in Europe had heard of Juncker” before he became President of the Commission,
  • Germany has “no desire for fiscal union”, and even that
  • there is a “very real possibility that the EU could disintegrate”.

Of course , nothing can be ruled out but the decision, after the UK had left, to allow the EU to borrow on its own account to boost the  post Covid economic recovery suggest that the European Union is in  much better health than the author believes.

Indeed his sentiments illustrate why Britain was never fully comfortable as a member of the European Union. It had joined with its head, but never with its heart or its imagination. In that sense Brexit was inevitable.

THE IRISH TRAPPED IN FRANCE BY THE SECOND WORLD WAR.

I had a personal reason for wanting to read “No Way Out, the Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945” by Isadore Ryan (Mercier Press).

This is because my aunt, Hilda Delany (1916-1956) from Culmullen was one of the Irish trapped in France, when the German Army  quickly over ran, and occupied the country in the summer of 1940.

Hilda had joined the Bon Sauveur Order of nuns in 1938 and was sent to France for training.

She spent the entire war in France, only returning to her convent in Holyhead in Wales in September 1945.

She died when I was only 9 years of age, so I did not get to know her well, although I do remember my mother bringing me to visit her in Holyhead on the Mail Boat. Conditions seem to have been very difficult in occupied France and food was scarce, and these privations may have contributed to her death at such an early age.

While my aunt is not mentioned in Isadore Ryan’s thoroughly researched book, there are many stories of other individual Irish individual people (including nuns), who found themselves trapped in France with minimal means of communication with, or receipt of support from, their families or communities back in Ireland.

The Irish Legation in Vichy France did its best to provide support but there were limits on what it could do. There were advantages in having a neutral Irish, rather than a British, passport at this time. The British passport holders were liable to be interned, whereas the Irish enjoyed some internal freedom of movement.

But the only way the Irish could get home to Ireland was by land to Spain and then by air or sea from Portugal to Britain. This was expensive, slow, and hazardous so very few attempted it.

Isadore Ryan ‘s book provides glimpses into the lives of many of the Irish, some of them well known like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. He also describes the lives and troubles of others who were priests, businessman, teachers of English, governesses, entertainers and nurses.

Some, like Beckett and Janie McCarthy were active in the French Resistance. A small number fraternized with the Germans, to the extent that they were suspected of collaboration with them. 

Interestingly, very few returned to Ireland when the war was over, a sign of straitened condition of this country in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Many Irish readers will find mention of families they know in this book.

It gives a glimpse into a more difficult time, which will put in proper proportion some of the constraints now imposed by the battle against Covid 19.

DE VALERA …..A TWO VOLUME BIOGRAPHY

I have recently completed David McCullagh’s two volume biography of Eamon de Valera, entitled “Rise 1882-1932”, and “Rule 1932-1975”.

 Both volumes are full of anecdotal detail that gives a good sense of the sort of person de Valera was. They are also the result of a thorough study of the archives.

De Valera was a man of apparent contradictions. 

He was infinitely charming and polite, but also wilful and self centred.

He  was creative, but wanted things done his way. He procrastinated, and obsessed over detail.

He was a magnetic personality, who could give a very dull speech, but still hold his audience in rapt attention. 

His personal story is a remarkable one.

Born in America, he was sent back to Limerick to be raised by his uncle and grandmother. A studious boy, he won a scholarship to Blackrock College and was to remain loyal to that college, and its rugby playing tradition, all his life.

He was introduced to physical force nationalism through the Irish Volunteers, established initially as a counterweight to the anti Home Rule Ulster Volunteers. 

He was condemned to death for his part in the 1916 Rebellion, but his sentence was commuted on 10 May 1916, two days after strenuous objection to continuing executions had been raised in the House of Commons by John Redmond and John Dillon, something de Valera never forgot.

He emerged as a major political figure through his role as a leader among the  post 1916 prisoners and as the successful Sinn Fein candidate in the East Clare by election.

When Dail Eireann was established, following the Sinn Fein success in the December 1918 General Election, de Valera became Priomh Aire (President of the Dail government) in April 1919. In this capacity, he left for the United States in June 1919, in an endeavour to win US support for Irish independence. His 18 month tour encountered some opposition from the American Legion, who resented the alliance of the 1916 rebels with Germany in the Great War.

His primary concern, in his political career, was sovereignty and independence from Britain. His secondary one was opposing partition and achieving Irish unity. He achieved his primary objective, but made little progress at all towards his second.

McCullagh deals extensively with de Valera’s role in the Treaty negotiations and the subsequent Civil War.

He presided over a chaotic Cabinet meeting to consider the British proposals on 3 December 1921, at which the exhausted negotiators got ambiguous instructions. When the negotiators were back in London, de Valera went touring his constituency and was substantially out of contact. 

When the negotiators came back with a Treaty he could not accept, he drew up an alternative to the Treaty (Document number 2), but did not address how it might have made been acceptable to the UK at that time.

De Valera had substantial moral authority in 1922, and if he had remained neutral or supported the Treaty, a Civil War might still have taken place, but it would probably have been much shorter.

When de Valera came to power in 1932, he built on the Treaty and the work of his predecessors in the 1920’s in enhancing Irish independence.

His major successes were the enactment of the 1937 Constitution, and the 1938 Agreement with Britain, which ended the Economic War and secured the return of the Naval Ports at Cobh and elsewhere to Irish jurisdiction.

This latter success enabled him to maintain Irish neutrality from 1939 to 1945. If Britain still had naval facilities on Irish territory, neutrality would have been very hard to sustain.

When he was Leader of the Opposition in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, de Valera devoted a lot of time to campaigning around the world against partition, but he did not come forward with any concrete proposals that would have been likely to reconcile Ulster unionists, with their British heritage and allegiance, with the nationalism of the rest of the island of Ireland.

 Overseas public opinion was never going to unite Ireland. That work had to be done in Ireland by Irish people of both allegiances. It was not done by de Valera or his contemporaries because, like many Irish Nationalists, de Valera believed it was for the British government to press unionists to come into a united Ireland.

 That was not realistic in 1914, and even less so in 1948. There is little evidence that he thought this through. 

De Valera’s economic policies have been criticised. He did not see economic growth, or the accumulation of wealth, as ends in themselves.

 He wanted to build a harmonious and self respecting society in Ireland. This is why he prioritized independence over growth.

He wanted comfort to be distributed widely, hence his wish that all should live in “frugal comfort”, a phrase he used repeatedly and which has been unfairly mocked. His priorities were spiritual and moral, as much as economic, and drew on his religious convictions.

I met de Valera once, in 1973, as his guest at a dinner he gave in Aras an Uachtaran for Liam Cosgrave and the members of the incoming Fine Gael/Labour government. He was exceptionally courteous and aware of the significance and role of each guest.

These two volumes tell an engaging human story and deserve to be widely read. 

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